“U.S. generals would rather have Afghanis hooked on phonics than on drugs.”
Yesterday a friend of mine posed an interesting question: if you could translate one and only one book into Pashto, the official language of Afghanistan, what book would you choose?
Apparently, my friend—who is currently serving in the Military Intelligence Corps of the United States Army—was asked by one of his superiors for a recommendation of a novel to translate.
This got me thinking, naturally, as to which novel I would choose (more on that later) but, perhaps more importantly, why is the Army translating whole novels for the Afghani population? Aren’t there more pressing issues at hand over there?
Bibliophiles like to believe that books make a difference in the world. Reading enlightens, educates, and connects us all through a shared experience—or so it can be argued. Sure, some books and documents have unquestionably changed the course of human history, from The Communist Manifesto to The Jungle to Harry Potter, among others. And let’s not forget that little missive called the Bible.
There’s no question that books can shock, delight, and make readers see the world from a different viewpoint. If a book fails to move the reader in one way or another then that book has failed. But is the U.S. Army hoping to move the Taliban to tears after reading Sophie’s Choice? Do they hope insurgents will see the error of their ways and the frailty of human life after reading All Quiet on the Western Front?
No matter what book the Army chooses to translate, they may have a bigger problem than subjective taste to confront. It turns out that most of the Afghani population has the reading comprehension of an American Kindergartener. According to a recent Wired blog post, Afghani police and soldiers can’t even read their bank statements or the serial numbers on their weapons. Soldiers who think they’re not getting paid won’t be soldiers for long, and even if they do stick around they can’t keep track of their weapons?
Realizing this, and recognizing that reading comprehension is just a good thing to have in general, NATO forces in Afghanistan have decided to give all soldiers, police officers, and recruits some homework.
This war on illiteracy may prove just as tough as the real war, especially considering that smoking heroin and opium—made from the abundant poppy plant found in Afghanistan— is a way of life for soldiers. U.S. generals would rather have Afghanis hooked on phonics than on drugs and are hopeful they can create some bookworms within a year.
So it makes sense that if Afghanis are going to be reading we might as well provide them with some good books. Unless, of course, our intentions aren’t as benevolent as they seem (are they ever?). Books are information, after all, and it wouldn’t be a war without some good, old-fashioned propaganda. Not that I’m suggesting the military is planning something insidious with their translations—though perhaps some publishers, agents, and authors who are losing out on foreign and translation money may think so—nor am I getting ready to don my tinfoil hat and break out conspiracy theories.
After all, propaganda comes in many forms. We love dropping pro-American leaflets on our enemies almost as much as we love dropping some BLU-82 Daisy Cutters or GBU-43 MOABs. And while some may argue that Military Intelligence is an oxymoron, spreading pro-American sentiment through radio and TV broadcasts, websites, and pamphlets can help win the hearts and minds of civilians and, in the best case scenario, change the minds of some bad guys.
So, is the Army using books to help spread the word that we’re the good guys, then? It’s a little far-fetched, considering what we already know about the reading level of the majority of Afghanis. Add to that the fact that novels can take a heck of a long time to read.
Then again, maybe that’s the point: sit everyone down with a good book and fighting will stop. Both sides can form book clubs, discussing which characters were their favorites, which endings surprised them the most, and who would play whom in the inevitably movie adaptation.
One can only hope.
My friend who brought up the subject suggested the Lord of the Rings trilogy (okay, it’s three books—four if you count The Hobbit—but really it’s like one big, long book). A good choice, I think, since 1) it’s a great read, and 2) the story captures the universal themes of good versus evil, bravery versus cowardice, greed versus selflessness. Another friend of mine suggested To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is the embodiment of justice; Scout the embodiment of childhood innocence. Both books should be read by everyone, no matter where he or she is from, in my opinion, but I’m not certain they would be top picks for the Army.
Someone else I know suggested The Kite Runner, but that might be a little too raw and harrowing for a newly minted reader. Three Cups of Tea? Sure, definitely, but not exactly the lay-down-your-arms and support your local G.I. book the brass in the Pentagon might be hoping for (plus, it’s non-fiction, which deserves another list).
What novel would you choose as your one book to be translated to Pashto?
Would it be an anti-war book like Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, or Johnny Get Your Gun? Maybe some flag-waving novels like The Red Badge of Courage or most anything by W.E.B. Griffin or Tom Clancy?
Or would you choose something timeless and profound, a book that exposes the best and worst of humanity, something that cuts right to the core of our beings, something so devastating that one cannot put down the book without being moved to tears and filled with an overwhelming sense of compassion?
Or maybe you’d pick something fun and frivolous to give the war-ravaged citizens some levity and a brief respite from their troubles? After all, it’s the least a book can, and should, do.
My pick? The Giving Tree.
(The above was originally posted at Reading Between the Lines and is re-posted here with the kind permission of the author. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Daniel P. Shook / Special Operations Task Force – South; used with kind permission of the ISAF Task Force.)